A natural—and less daunting—place to begin reflecting on our Foundation’s grantmaking journey is to walk back our current path back to the strategic plan we deployed in 2020 (the timing of which certainly presented its own challenges, but in retrospect was a unique opportunity live in our values and put those new strategies into action). In that plan, we created three “pillars,” one of which, of course, was grantmaking. Within that grantmaking pillar, our main strategic intention was to “deepen and sharpen our grantmaking focus for greater impact on our mission.”
The grantmaking updates of that foundational year, and in the nearly three years since, have been focused on making informed, efficient, strategic grants for maximum impact on our mission. Through many small shifts, we’ve been able to make some larger strides in our grantmaking overall, with particular emphasis on framework, process, and value alignment.
We knew the first critical piece to operationalizing that grantmaking strategic intention was to streamline our grantmaking, updating our guidelines and categories to reflect our priority areas more accurately and to be more user friendly for applicants and grantee partners. It was also important for us to simplify the application process and make sure all the information about grant opportunities was updated to be more clear, concise, and accessible.
When we started this re-imagining of our grantmaking framework, our Foundation had roughly 12 different grant categories, which also meant 12 different deadlines, sets of criteria, and reporting schedules. It was difficult for new applicants—and even current grantee partners—to figure out what category to apply in, when to apply, and how much to ask for. As we analyzed the landscape of our grant portfolio at that time, some larger themes revealed themselves:
- The organizations that we fund are doing incredible work in South Carolina across a large spectrum of program areas to address the multi-faceted nature of poverty.
- We fund organizations meeting the fundamental needs of people experiencing poverty, organizations working to support long-term and sustainable economic mobility, and organizations influencing and guiding change in the structural factors and related systemic/ policy issues that have created, reinforced, or exacerbated poverty in South Carolina.
After lots of reading, discussion, feedback, and drafts, those twelve old categories were condensed into three new categories: 1) Immediate Needs 2) Breaking the Cycle and 3) Systems Level Change. *(some key links that helped guide this restructure as well as our ongoing learning are at the bottom of this post.)
The creation of three grant focus areas with two grant cycles each year both streamlined internal processes and improved applicant experience. This grantmaking structure also began movement towards a more strategic alignment of grantmaking framework and resources to increase the Foundation’s impact, with a deeper and more intentional focus on the areas of Breaking the Cycle and Systems Level Change.
Refining and streamlining grants management infrastructure also led to more alignment between resources and strategic goals. As we continued to operationalize this strategic intention, process updates translated to more equitable reviews and decisions, a more transparent process, and a deeper relationship with organizations going through the application process.
The creation of a new inquiry process allowed staff to field questions at the onset of the application process, ensuring that organizations who meet our General Criteria are applying in the correct category and have a direct line of communication with staff. Additionally, organizations who do not align with Foundation mission and/or grant guidelines are able to receive a declination without having to enter the full application process. By intentionally creating an inquiry process rooted in equity and focused on applicant experience, each applicant (or potential applicant) has the same level of access to information across the board. As a statewide funder with a small team, this process also supports our staff’s capacity and ability to steward resources responsibly.
Additional framework and process shifts since that first year have included:
- Updating Immediate Needs grant parameters for more equitable process (all Immediate Needs grants are now the same amount and organizations with operating budgets less than $500,000 are prioritized in the first grant cycle of the year)
- Updating our grantmaking timeline to achieve balances in number of applicants, staff and committee time, and grant disbursement
- Streamlining grants management duties to effectively direct staff resources
- Aligning staff roles and expertise for more effective, efficient collaboration on grants
Along with these shifts, a new Grants Portal launched in 2021 continues to provide critical infrastructure to support our internal processes as well as the applicant and grantee partner experience.
We have also continued to refine processes to reduce the burden on applicants and grantee partners, including designing clear applications that do not require an excessive amount of time or multiple attachments, reducing reporting requirements, and by offering general operating support grants. Simply put: for the nonprofits we are here to serve, we know that their time is best spent running their programs and doing their work. Making small shifts to reduce some of those barriers is a critical piece that allows us as funders more effectively fulfill our purpose: not just what we do, but HOW we do it.
All grantmaking activities are guided by the Foundation’s core values and, in 2020, a formal set of grantmaking principles was introduced to enhance the framework that guides the Foundation’s grantmaking strategy, processes, and funding decisions. These principles center on transparency (both internally and externally), trust that is reciprocal and shared, humility and mindfulness of proximity to power/resources, and alignment with the Foundation’s core values of respect, justice, collaboration, compassion, and courage. Ensuring that all elements of our grantmaking and processes (ex: overall framework, guidelines, applications, report requirements, funding decisions, communications, etc.) align with our grantmaking principles allows us to continuously refine and improve the grant experience.
We have continued to work to cultivate a positive, value-aligned experience for applicants and grantee partners with intentional focus on trust and communication. For inquiring organizations and first-time applicants, we focus on ensuring that messaging around our grantmaking is clear, consistent, and up-to-date; staff is available, responsive, and helpful in guiding applicants through application process; and personalized feedback is available to declined applications. By maintaining clear, transparent, and ongoing communication with all grantee partners, we hope to continue deepening those trust-based relationships, creating space where folks feel safe sharing openly about successes AND challenges.
Throughout this grantmaking journey that began shortly before 2020, we’ve been charged to strategically align our grantmaking framework and Foundation resources to increase the Foundation’s impact, focusing intentionally on the areas of Breaking the Cycle of poverty and Systems Level Change. As of today, those two categories combined comprise nearly 62% of our grantmaking, which is up nearly 14 points from 2020.
As we plan for our 2024 grantmaking and beyond, we hope to continue that trend upward and are currently exploring how to effectively harness data and research to help us identify more targeted areas of opportunity to increase impact. We’ll also continue to refine our grants process by using feedback from our grantee partners to help us not only evaluate the grant experience, but also identify opportunities for improvement, and make those adjustments so that we can more effectively fulfill our grantmaking role. And woven throughout all of our plans, is the ongoing commitment to cultivating a positive, value-aligned experience for all who encounter our Foundation through our grantmaking.